Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Public Theater

Review | Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, by Suzan-Lori Parks | Directed by Jo Bonney | American Repertory Theater | Public Theater

… when Emancipation was proclaimed … 

The master of a modest sized Texas plantation has been called to fight for the Confederates and wants his slave, Hero, to come along, promising he’ll free Hero when it’s over, a promise the master has reneged on previously.  Will he follow the master to war on what he knows is the wrong side, chasing the carrot of his personal freedom?  Or will he stay back on the plantation and remain a slave?  The master has given Hero the choice.

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Review | Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Presented in Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater | Public Theater

Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater that he founded in New York City in 1968 have been icons of avant garde theater.  He’s made a number of statements about his philosophical and theatrical purposes touching on, e.g., “total theater,”  “minimalist theater,”  “primitive,” etc., but statements are not theater.  Just what do we have in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes?  Stunning style, no substance. 

Entering the theater brings you to a marvelous bright world of bumble-bee colors — golden yellow and black — dominating in staccato rhythms: equidistant punctuations are everywhere.  In terms of design, an underlying grid, overlaid with a wide variety of visual excitements, stretches from the backdrop of the stage half-way through the theater, along the walls and on overhead strings.  It’s a powerful stab at a total visual experience.  It’s complex (what happened to minimalist?), rich, surprising, and makes you keen for the play.

Then the play opens and from the first banalities, you realize you’ve already seen the best part.  An aging man, looks back on his encounters with prostitutes in Venice, and in particular on his his ambivalent longing for one named Suzie.  Raised up by his memory, Suzie vamps with a lot of European style and confidence.  Her friend Gabriella is more uncertain and flapper-like winsome – finger to cheek and two cute knees pressing in to each other.  Prostitution hasn’t taken a toll on either of them and their costumes are terrific.

The solipsistic philosopher George Berkeley is referred to and philosophical words are uttered.  The actors are busy and vividly costumed.  Nothing much happens in theatrical terms.  OK, we’ve seen it:  the spectacle wears thin, Emperor’s New Clothes style.   The hour length of the performance seems a long time.   See it for the design, just don’t expect a play.  The grid design has its roots in early 20th-century Cubism.  Things here make one think of a colorful old-fashioned typewriter,  sound and all, exploded large.  Is this all still avant garde? 

The cast does a good job with the material:  David Skeist (Alfredo), Stephanie Hayes (Gabriella), Alenka Kraigher (Suzie), Rocco Sisto (Samuel), Nicolas Norena (Bibendum [aka Michelin]).     

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes plays at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through June 6.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.    

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | King Lear by William Shakespeare | Directed by James Macdonald | Public Theater

… not in our stars …

The cast is so star studded* that it’s surprising that this production comes out no more than a serviceable Lear.   But that’s still a lot:  since it’s such a great play, and all the words (except for the Fool) come across with full clarity it’s a rewarding evening.  You understand all the actions, motivations, and entanglements of the plot and come out feeling you have an enhanced understanding of the play.  That’s worthwhile.  The language seems immediate, not distant.  Good.  But the poetic power is damped, and the production seems disjointed. 

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Review | Idiot Savant Starring Willem Dafoe | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Public Theater | In Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater

Idiot Savant is a chaotic, post modern play that eludes meaning but is a great vehicle for Willem Dafoe’s particular performance talents:  his powerful ability to express every state of mind from the hilarious to the desperate through his extraordinarily mobile face and articulated body, and his energy, intelligence, and willingness to go all the way.

The set is like a character and one sees it first so let’s start with it.  It’s a room crowded with stuff like hanging chandeliers, mirrors, cabinets, looming closed doors, portraits of one man’s face repeated from one end of the room to the other, geometric patterns, rows of alternating dark and light squares, all spelling claustrophobic and obsessive.  It is hung with letters of the alphabet, some in proper order and repeated in reverse, some random, suggesting a play about meaning or the lack of it.  Numbers are painted on the floor.  It is a compelling projection of a locked-in intelligence, of the idiot savant who dwells there.

Dafoe throws himself onto this stage dressed in a zany maid’s uniform and a man’s necktie, his hair partly tied in a top-of-the-head pony tail, it’s an electric moment.  Everything Dafoe does in this is electric, but as far as the play goes, nothing much happens.  Two women move around this room with the idiot, Marie, in a medieval looking long velvet dress with a cross around her neck, read “purity,” and Olga, in riding pants, a Hedda Gabbler with a delicious Eastern European accent.  A man between two women representing two poles of femininity.  Again.  The Idiot Savant is sexually drawn now to Marie, now to Olga but can never break through the shell that keeps him to himself.  There are lots of amusing bits, gymnastics, mysterious boxes, characters appearing from cubby holes, disappearing through doors, there are servants who appear stiffly with dark and light square patterned bows lifted as if to catch a deer on a medieval tapestry, lots of distractions but no real action.  I was a little disappointed the Idiot Savant didn’t do or say anything all that savant, unless his musings and utterances were more savvy than I could catch.

Until finally an over twice-human size figure comes walking in with a prominent yellow duck’s bill and duck’s face, and we’re given to believe that he is a god, or god-like.  He speaks platitudes in an electronically altered sonorous voice that we’ve been hearing intermittently since the beginning.  Things actually dull down in his presence, and really, he seems such a stupid idea.  If you were thinking maybe there was something to this play, here’s where you decide for sure there isn’t.  Shortly the Big Duck takes off “forever.”  Dafoe does all he can to save the play with a final stunning and astounding freeze moment.

I wondered (before Big Duck) whether the idea of this play might be that human beings, the most intelligent creatures on earth, are idiot savants, locked away from one another in impotent isolation.  Maybe, but though you can make the words work, that’s not really what comes across.  Idiot Savant is exciting visuals and a thrilling actor in search of a better play.

Idiot Savant plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 13.

Idiot Savant Starring William Dafoe

Willen Dafoe in Idiot Savant. Photo: Joan Marcus

Review | The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney | Public Theater

Three plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney that have several characters in common, take place mainly among Blacks in Louisiana bayou country and move forward in time are billed as a Trilogy.  The Brothers Size, in the center, is built around a significant conflict and is a fine one-act play.  The other two are choreographed, and dramatically and aesthetically lit — there are some great effects but one senses the hyper treatment is making up for their weakness as plays.  The Brothers Size, presented in a straightforward fashion, carries its own weight.  McCraney writes with a fine poeteic realism throughout, and the acting in all three plays is excellent but Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun Size in The Brothers Size is monumental.   The names of the characters are drawn from Yoruba gods.

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Review | Shakespeare’s Othello | With Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain | Directed by Peter Sellars | Public Theater and Labyrinth Theater Company

… honest Iago …

This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare’s language and meaning.  It’s done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics.  The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare’s language so that one hears Shakespeare’s language as ones own.

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Review | The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson | Directed by Liesl Tommy | Public Theater

… desegregating Birmingham …

The Good Negro is a fictionalized dramatization of a key moment in the civil rights struggle — Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

This play has a very strong aspect, impressive and exciting.  It focuses on the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council struggling to keep their eye on the great ideal of freedom in the face of human failings — rivalries, sexual indiscretions, antagonisms, fear, betrayal — that could have derailed the campaign for a desegregated downtown Birmingham.  How rare for suspense to be not just about who’s going to get killed or who’s going to be found out, although those threats are imminent, but can this group of dedicated freedom fighters overcome human weakness in service of a high ideal?  I can’t think of another play or narrative that has that theme — if you can, please let me know!

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Review | Philip Roth in Khartoum | by David Bar Katz | Directed by John Gould Rubin | Labyrinth Theater | Public Theater

…  It’s a very amusing play …

You will laugh a lot at Philip Roth in Khartoum — the laughter bursts out, as in a Roth novel, from marvelous, ironic observations of vivid contemporary characters and their interactions.  And it’s a joy to watch the cast’s delight in pulling the humor and emotion out of the well written dialogue.  And all of that’s available for the price of a movie, because the Labyrinth Theater sees the play as a work in progress.

What happens when four sophisticated, intelligent couples, sexually dissatisfied and with a few other contemporary stresses thrown in, get together for a party?  The play asks whether extreme sexual moments — exhibitionist nudity, explicit sexual description, bestiality, etc. — lead to resolution of significant life issues and, ultimately, to something this play calls “truth.”  In the course of the evening — ours and the characters’ — no-matter-what sexual honesty and truth are amalgamated to the point where one loses track of which is which — as in the game they play, Truth or Dare.

When the sexual track runs thin, the focus shifts to enthusiasm for travel to Khartoum to somehow do good there for others.  By the way, there’s never any question of Philip Roth going to Khartoum — only whether he’ll make it to the party.  Another leitmotiv is that the couple among the four at whose TriBeCa loft the party takes place have an autistic child, unseen in the next room though not unheard, who is loved but not accepted, and to the extent that there is a resolution to this play, it involves that child.

… that still has a way to go …

“We’re still experimenting … the actors have only rehearsed for two weeks…”, Labyrinth begins by explaining.  The actors work beautifully together, though, and everything went smoothly except for an unscripted coffee spill and the delayed appearance of a prop, both of which got big, warm laughs from the audience.  But the play still does have farther to go to locate its significance.  Does the sexual brouhaha create any change?  What was all that about Khartoum anyhow?  Did it effect anyone’s insight?  or emotions?  One character seems to undergo some emotional change but it seems pasted on.  Why should we believe in it?  And why does everyone else get left behind?

Philip Roth in Khartoum reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in being about people trying to work out essential life issues at a party, and also of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, because in spite of wit and distractions, no one has a very good time and ultimately they’re all stuck.  But it’s different from these because, at least so far, its premise about the resolving power of sex and/or honesty is unfulfilled, and all in all it drops us off near where we started.

Why’s Philip Roth in the title?  If you’re fascinated by his novels — the great earlier ones, not the recent skimpy throw-offs (see Indignation, noted here below) — you may wonder as I did whether to see the play looking for Roth.  The characterization of Roth the man is way off target, but the play is saturated with a Roth-resembling wit and reference, as well as a will to shock — that’s real, not just name dropping.  At certain moments, the play out-Roths Roth.  As for why Roth is “in Khartoum,” I still don’t know.

The perfect cast includes:  Amelia Cambell, Elizabeth Canavan, Alexander Chaplin, David Deblinger, Jamie Klasse, Michael Puzzo, Jenna Stern and Victor Williams.

Philip Roth in Khartoum is playing at the Public Theater on Layfayette Street in NYC through December 21.

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